Austin, TX — Today, after weeks of media aggrandizement, millionaire tech investor Ben Horowitz sat down on a stage in Austin with the rapper Nas and made a large room uncomfortable.
Did you know that Horowitz loves rap, and rappers? Yes? Are you sure? If you don't, you might have somehow avoided the self-promotional blitz Horowitz had undertaken, the apex, or maybe nadir of which, took place earlier today. It was the most contrived thing I'll see during a week of contrivances.
Horowitz and Nas, who the night before had shared a performance stage at a warehouse party with Ashton Kutcher (life imitates parody), swear they are dear, dear friends. And yet, they struggled to have a casual Q&A without looking at a printed out list of talking points. Even with the list, silence and weak laughter loomed.
— SPARK (@SPARKbrand) March 9, 2014
The purpose of the interview, part of this week's SXSW Interactive marketing bacchanal, was to market the legitimacy of Ben Horowitz's overly-professed love of hip hop. Just two old buddies, hanging out, not trying to sell anyone anything.
"Who is Ben Horowitz, and why am I friends with him?" Nas read from his sheet to kick off the event. This was the event's best and most pressing question. The company line is that the two are friends because—haven't you heard?—rap and venture capital have so much in common. Nas' youth in the Queensbridge Housing Projects makes him a natural bestie to the scrappy software entrepreneur—because really, isn't struggling through poverty the purest form of the entrepreneurial spirit? Horowitz sure thinks so, and has no qualms about making that absurd comparison before an audience.
Horowitz later cited Haitian slave revolt leader Toussaint Louverture as a business inspiration. "I should be Ben Louverture," Horowitz giggled, imagining his deft investing strategy and penchant for success as pretty much the same thing as fighting for the liberation of Haiti. More silence. Ben half-rapped a couple Nas lines, citing further inspiration for his recently released business tome, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Nas thanked Horowitz for existing, and for writing his new book of platitudes and layoff anecdotes. The conversation was stilted, and dry, and people slowly filed out of the Austin Convention Center. At the end, Nas presented Horowitz with a Fila hat.
This was only the most recent of what will, if we're lucky, be a full few months of Ben Horowitz begging us to believe he loves rap. Ben Horowitz, says Ben Horowitz, is the personification of cool black youth culture. Venture capital is the new rap.
Horowitz is no stranger to stretched metaphors. His new Fortune profile comes with a cover photo of the venture capitalist holding his taped-up fists in a boxing stance. Ben Horowitz isn't literally a boxer, Fortune kindly reminds us, but he sure feels like one. Some "real boxers" might get hit very hard in the face, again and again, sure, but Horowitz has seen companies he's signed checks for go under. The sting of defeat isn't just for the ring.
It's a clownish self-comparison, and it only seems mild in light of his relentless willingness to play an even bigger clown: the hip-hop capitalist. Almost all of Horowitz's blog posts are started with contrived lines by Nas or Kanye, often paired with a more serious, traditional business adage. Get it? Rap and MBA gibberish, mixed together! Wink. Just close your eyes and imagine, he listens to Yeezus and talks about the pains of equity rounds. It's whiteboy try-hardism at its most painful—the sad desperation of a dad who opened his son's Spotify account and now won't stop saying SURFBORDT during carpool. And it's not just a minor routine, a passing remark made regular, or just a personality train: Horowitz seems to wants his rap fandom to define his persona, the way Mike Arrington worked so hard to be The Pugnacious Asshole of Silicon Valley. Even men like Shirven Pishevar are happy to look like star-fuckers now and then, but he's still far short of The Starfucker VC.
The Horowitz authenticity blitz maybe culminated with his Nas Q&A, but has been a long-honed product. Over the past two weeks, gearing up for the release of a new book, the Wall Street Journal published Horowitz's "Hip Hop Lessons for Startups." The San Jose Mercury News headlined him as "Hip-hop venture capitalist Ben Horowitz." Fortune published a list of his favorite rap tracks alongside its profile. He rapped on VH1 segment.
Like anyone sinking into the quicksand of try-hard desperation, Horowitz manages to make it worse by failing. He tells stories of his black childhood neighbors and incessantly retweets anyone he's managed to impress. He wrote a personal blog post about his youth rap group—he was "MC Tic Toc"—and constantly invokes Nas wherever possible.
Nas, not himself unfamiliar with desperation, even recently sat down for a solo interview with Fortune to pump Ben's bona fides:
The people that think it's gimmicky are the people who don't know Ben. It's funny for me to hear that because I know Ben. You can't play with Ben with hip-hop. He'll school you about it. Ben schools me about hip-hop, and I know a lot about it. He's only true to who he his, and that's what makes him stand out. There's nobody else out there were he is at. Hip-hop is an extension of him and him of it. What you see is what you get from Ben.
Words plucked straight from the culture-fantasies of any white boy. But the friendship between Nas and Horowitz isn't just a love of music and a shared culture. It's mostly a love of each other's money and influence.
Nas is a joint investor in Rap Genius, the greatest Silicon Valley embodiment of white corporatism and black culture, a startup built on translating black musicians' words, built by three Yale grads, not a black face in sight. Ben brings the money and tech cred, Nas gives him a hip-hop pass. Horowitz can indulge every boyhood dream of hanging out with rappers, and Nas will cosign—after all, some of his money is riding on the cachet Horowitz claims. It's the perfect 21st century bond; the branded friendship. Read a few passages from Horowitz's book, "The Hardest Thing About Hard Things," and you'll see why he might need the hype man: It's a combo platter of platitudes, business truisms, an internet MBA printed out and bound.
Ben Horowitz didn't start the celebrity VC era, but he's accelerating it with every cringe-y tweet, making shrewdness and obvious intelligence somehow not enough. It's a shame, because there's every reason to believe Ben Horowitz is a shrewd, intelligent man, a savvy investor, and exceptional at his job. But being good isn't good enough anymore—you have to be attractive, be marketable, be eminently hashtag-able, anything to make your money pile stand out from the next guy's. It probably doesn't matter that Nas and Ben looked so uncomfortable together on stage, and that, in reality, they probably aren't the most important men in each other's lives. Silicon Valley isn't known for its ability to accurately judge interpersonal relationships (that's what apps are for), and enough people buy the great Nas-Horowitz bromance for it to have been worth all the bullshitting. (At the very least, it covers up the unimpeachable fact that Horowitz runs his venture firm with a team of almost exclusively white people.)
Horowitz has succeeded in selling the picture of smiling, boxing, rapping Ben Horowitz, draped in gold chains, that inhabits his mind. He's made it real, if only for a week—and to stand out among unctuous self-promoters during SXSW, an occult ritual sacrifice of human dignity to corporate branding, a cultural feat not even Nas could pull off alone.
Top photo: Instagram/henrylmcnamara